During the past 30 years, our homes have been dramatically transformed by modern electrical devices; however, these same devices have also contributed to the shocking number of electrical fires this country suffers every year. Many existing homes are simply overwhelmed by today’s electrical demands, putting them at greater risk of arc faults and arc-induced fires.

An arc fault is a dangerous electrical problem caused by damaged, overheated, or stressed electrical wiring or devices. Arc faults can occur when older wires become frayed or cracked, when a nail or screw damages a wire behind a wall, or when outlets or circuits are overburdened.

In the United States, arcing faults cause more than 30,000 home fires each year, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries and more than $750 million in property damage. The solution to this problem is a combination arc fault circuit interrupter, or AFCI. The CPSC estimates that AFCIs could prevent more than 50 percent of the electrical fires that occur every year.

Safety by design

Arc fault circuit interrupters, or AFCIs, are devices that provide a higher level of protection by detecting hazardous arcing conditions and shutting down the electricity before a fire can start.  There are three types of AFCIs.

  • Branch/feeder AFCIs, the most common type of AFCIs, replace standard circuit breakers in your home’s electrical service panel and provides arc-fault protecton to the entire branch-circuit from the service panel to the outlets. 
  • Outlet AFCIs are receptacles that provide protection to power cords and things that are plugged into the receptacle.
  • Combination AFCIs combine the features of branch/feeder and outlet AFCIs and detect arching faults in the complete circuit.

AFCIs offer greater protection than traditional breakers because they are equipped with advanced internal electronics that detect arc fault hazards traditional breakers were not designed to recognize.

While AFCIs were previously only required to protect bedroom circuits, the new code requires this technology to be installed in additional areas of the home, including dining rooms and living rooms.

Though the new safety requirements are limited to new home construction, AFCIs can provide increased protection in existing homes as well. Since the probability of electrical fires increases with the age of the home, older homes with aging and deteriorating wiring systems can especially benefit from the added protection offered by these devices.

These devices can be purchased at any local electrical distributor, hardware store, and home improvement center across the country for approximately $35 each. AFCIs should be installed by a licensed electrician.  Once installed, homeowners should test their AFCIs once a month to ensure they are working properly.  ESFI's illustrated “How to Test an AFCI” fact sheet provides basic instructions.

More information about AFCIs is available in ESFI's AFCI Fact Sheet, Arc Faults and Electrical Safety Brochure, and Q&A: Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs), or by viewing our many AFCI-related safety videos.